Zibby is joined by Nora Zelevansky to talk about her latest novel, Competitive Grieving. The two discuss how the death of a friend often also means the loss of a shared history, why moms often feel the need to conceal their grief from their children, and what they each have planned for their own funerals. Read Nora’s essay on Moms Don’t Have Time to Write.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nora. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Competitive Grieving.

Nora Zelevansky: Thank you so much for having me. I am beyond excited to talk to you today.

Zibby: This is, by the way, one of the best titles, I have to say. Did you think of that right away? Was that always the title?

Nora: I did. It’s so funny. Normally, the title comes later or they make you change the title or whatever it is. In this case, the title came to me first. I literally said to a friend of mine, “I’m going to write a book called Competitive Grieving,” and then I did.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I love how all throughout the book you — not you. The character was envisioning how everybody’s funeral and all of that would go. That is one of the many crazy things my brain does, is constantly think about funerals and what it would be like, but I haven’t done it for every single person I’ve seen. What is your vision for yourself? How would you fill that in in the book? Actually, hold on, back up. What is your book about? Please tell listeners. Then I want to know how you would fill out your own funeral details.

Nora: My own funeral, okay, I love that. The book is a dark comedy, an unlikely love story about the main character, Wren, who is totally doing just fine, but the bar is low. She’s just sort of living her life but maybe not to her full potential. Her best friend from childhood dies suddenly. She is left to confront not just the loss of him, but also the navigation of all of these complicated, crazy relationships that he’s left behind. The book is really about the desire to be seen in the wake of the loss of somebody who isn’t there to confirm your significance to them. That’s what the book is about.

Zibby: What I was referring to is all throughout, the main character keeps going through and as she meets anyone, as this funny literary device, also, you have descriptions of what she’s thinking about the person and how their funeral — what they would want, blah, blah, blah. That’s what I was talking about.

Nora: It’s so funny that you bring up that up. I was thinking about it today because I’m meant to go on a last-minute work trip to LA next week. I had this moment, one of those weird moments we all have, or I guess I’d like to believe we all have, not just me, where I was like, what if my plane went down? Then what would happen? How would people react? The idea for describing people’s funerals came, in part, out of that macabre instinct we all kind of have to think about, what would happen if I was gone? Who would care? Who would react? Then also, this writerly instinct I have, which is to make up backstories for people when I see them. In terms of my own funeral, I have to admit that some of Wren’s funeral details are sort of overlapping with mine. I think a sushi spread does sound — although, maybe when you’re sad that sounds kind of not good. Does anybody actually want that when they’re sad? I don’t know. I’m trying to think of what the best comfort foods would be. I don’t know. Maybe a Southern fried chicken spread is more the thing.

Zibby: That’s cool. We don’t see that a lot at funerals.

Nora: What about you?

Zibby: What about me? Actually, I thought about this for a long time at a funeral yesterday. I was going through in my head, which place I would like to have my funeral at in New York City, assuming it was in New York. I was going through all the different venues in my head. Then I was wondering, maybe that’s too big. Maybe that one’s not big enough. I don’t know. I wonder how many people will come. How do people decide how big a space to book? In terms of food, I didn’t even think about the afterparty space/shiva, which would probably be at my mom’s house. In my ideal vision, pigs in a blanket and grilled cheese and little bites of brownies and lots of chocolate chip cookies and maybe a vat of dough somewhere.

Nora: And definitely copious alcohol. I feel like that’s just necessary for everybody.

Zibby: Yes. Also, your essay — was it yesterday, a couple day ago? — for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write, that was so good. I loved it. You talk about being on the side of the road with the stroller. Not the road, but pulling off the sidewalk. What happens when you get news but you have to deal with your kids? Oh, my gosh, it’s something, again, that so many people are going through right now. Tell me about that.

Nora: Part of the book was inspired by a personal experience that I had losing a very close friend. At the time that I lost him, we lost him, I should say, I had a toddler. I was pregnant. I was already having a bad day. It was one of those days where I was already weeping for no real reason. The truth is, it was the beginning of 2017, so many people in Brooklyn were weeping, is the truth. The world felt very unstable. I got the call. I got a series of calls. I finally was like, this is weird. Why are all these people calling me? I picked up the phone and got the bad news. There I was on the side of the street with my daughter who was looking at me expectantly, like, what’s happening? I suddenly realized that I couldn’t have the full reaction, whatever that might be, on the sidewalk anyway. I had to sort of modulate it. The whole experience then of being with my daughter and then also being pregnant and then having a baby and taking care of him all while processing the loss of this person who was really important to me as a child especially, because he was a childhood friend, was all the more complicated by the fact that I was also parenting and being a mom to the best of my ability. My husband, by the end of that year, was like, “If we listen to any more maudlin indie music, I’m going to off myself.” I was, with the baby, listening to sad music all day long. It was very soothing, in some ways, to have that time with a baby. It was also complicated.

Zibby: I’m really sorry about your friend.

Nora: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s never a good time. It reminds me, in my first anthology, there’s this hilarious author. Her name’s Liz Astrof. She’s also a TV writer. She wrote an essay called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Cry.” It was all about how she had to keep holding in this big cry. Every time that she thought she would be able to let it out, something got in the way until all of a sudden, it just came pouring out, but at this time that she didn’t expect. I think that is something that moms have to do. I feel like I had to do this back when I worked in a corporate environment too, just holding it in, shoving away the emotions, which I think is easier for some people than other people. It’s not so easy for me to do that. It sort of seeps out. It’s so hard to delay a breakdown, if you will.

Nora: It’s interesting. Not that long after that, in the context of something totally different, my daughter said to me, “Mommy, why don’t you ever cry?” I’m a crier, so I was like, wait, she thinks I don’t ever cry. Then within the same week or two, my mother said to me, “Why do you have to hide it? Why do you need to not cry in front of her?” It did really get me thinking. I do think you want to modulate things a little bit so that it doesn’t feel scary, but maybe you don’t have to hide, as my mother would say, the fact that you’re a human being. Maybe it’s okay for them to know that. In the midst of it, it’s such a complicated thing to navigate. You’re just in protection mode.

Zibby: Totally. One of the things that I found really interesting about your book was how one person’s loss sets off this whole chain of events and how you discover things you didn’t know and people you didn’t know. You go through this book, and you see why, perhaps, some people have been kept apart and whatever. It’s really interesting. When you have a close relationship with someone, you don’t often know about all the other relationships. This whole cast of characters vying for attention in this melodrama world, I found it really interesting. I haven’t had this experience. I’ve found that the people who I know who have passed away, in general, the other people, I’ve known pretty well. What rang true? Did this happen? Maybe you can’t say that.

Nora: I was talking to a friend. We were talking about how it’s one thing to navigate your friend group. If you have a really strong friend group and you guys lose someone, you’re kind of all in the same place. If the person you’ve lost has several friend groups, he has a lot of close people from different parts of his life and you’re having to navigate his friends, it’s such a different thing to try to do that. In fact, to an extent, I did experience a similar thing in that my friend who died was very charismatic and had had a little bit of a taste of fame. There were a lot of people who felt really close to him and felt like they had been very significant in his life. There was a struggling for recognition and a notion that the person that was being described maybe wasn’t the person you knew. There’s one instance where a close friend of mine, actually at a bar after the funeral, said to me something about how he was just so kind. I was like, was he? I loved him so much, but that wouldn’t have been a word that I used for him. That is one of the things I wanted the book to illustrate, this idea that maybe you don’t have to sacrifice the version of the person that you know just because someone else has a different one. Maybe there are just different incarnations of all of us that are significant to different people at different points in our lives. Maybe that’s an okay thing. It also got me thinking about, and I don’t know if this resonates with you, but the idea that sometimes when you lose someone, you’re mourning the person they were at the point where they were most seminal in your life. You’re also kind of mourning different stages of them.

Zibby: Very true, and yourself.

Nora: And yourself. Totally.

Zibby: I feel like there’s so much of myself that I’ve lost with people I’ve lost, not to mention all the memories. They’re the only people I could call to be like, what about this? Do you remember where we were when blah, blah, blah? There’s nobody to call. It’s gone. It’s just totally gone.

Nora: Exactly. There’s no one to confirm your shared history together. That’s a loss in itself. It does feel like a hole. In a lot of ways, those are holes that don’t get filled. They’re holes that you find a way around. You create — this is sort of a weird way to — almost new content in yourself, but the holes remain. That’s the other thing, also, in thinking about — I won’t give anything away. In thinking about the ending of a book like this, I think there’s a line where she, in letters that she writes to her friend who’s gone, she says, you’ve rendered a happy ending impossible. I guess I just wanted to reflect this idea that the holes remain.

Zibby: Very true. Wait, so Nora, how did you become a writer?

Nora: I always loved to write. In a cliché way, I was the editor of my high school literary magazine and all that kind of stuff. I loved personal essay. That was my thing. I was a Joan Didion-head, if that’s a thing. I just coined that phrase. My mother always tells a story about how I was fifteen and she said to me, “Maybe you’ll be a writer when you grow up.” I was like, “Oh, no way. That is way too hard. I’m not doing that,” which is funny because I don’t know how I knew that it was hard, but I was right. I had this idea that I was going to work with writers. That was going to be my solution. I did. Initially, I worked in Hollywood as a development executive working with scripts and whatever. Then I worked in politics for a while. That was sort of a low point for me. I’m very interested in politics, but working in the actual machinations of that was not for me. In that time, I started freelance writing for a yoga magazine. I became a journalist. I was a freelance journalist for a long time writing for all different magazines mostly about fashion and beauty and travel.

I had all this weird, rich material that I didn’t realize I was collecting, which I guess we just all do as move around the world. Ultimately, I felt constrained by all the magazines and their very specific voices and needs. I was like, I’m going to try to write fiction. I’ve never done it before. I’m going to try. I did National Novel Writing Month, which for me, was very helpful because it stopped me from stopping. One of the rules is you can’t stop. I couldn’t decide, oh, this idea is terrible, I’m scraping it. I just had to write through. Actually, drawing a lot on my absurd experiences in the world of beauty and travel, especially pre-recession when it was just so over-the-top opulent and crazy and whatever, went into that first book. At the end of that, I had a draft that was, as you can imagine, a hot mess because I wrote it very quickly. Then ultimately, I felt like there was something there. I worked through it. That was my first novel.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool.

Nora: I feel really lucky because, like I said, I think there was something special about writing fiction without expectations because I didn’t necessarily know if I had any affinity for it or ability for it. Now it’s my true love. I still do a lot of nonfiction writing, but I love the fiction so much. Obviously, you do too.

Zibby: I love to read it.

Nora: I am distracted by the most beautiful bookshelves in the world behind you. I love it so much. It’s such a dreamscape behind you.

Zibby: Thank you. I only see it on Zoom because I’m always facing this way. It’s such a waste. I should put a mirror here instead of a bulletin board. Oh, well. What are you working on now?

Nora: Fiction-wise, I’m working on a new book, but it’s in pretty nascent stages. It’s a road trip story in part inspired by the fact that during pandemic, I haven’t gone anywhere, practically. All my books tend to be these delayed coming-of-age stories about people who are kind of stuck and need to find a way to get unstuck. It is that kind of story again where there’s an event that’s a catalyst for change that puts them on some sort of oddball journey, generally, hopefully, with humor and usually a love story because I don’t seem to be able to write something without one.

Zibby: What are some of your favorite books or something you’ve read lately?

Nora: Right now, I’m reading One Last Stop. I just finished, I was about to say The Great Believers, but The Great Circle. I don’t know if you’ve read it yet.

Zibby: I have, yeah. I have a podcast with her if you want to listen.

Nora: Oh, you do?

Zibby: Yeah. I actually really loved Seating Arrangements. Did you read that book of hers?

Nora: Yes, that is my favorite books of hers as well.

Zibby: That was my favorite.

Nora: This one was super interesting. It’s always interesting to me when you have a book that tells a story from two different perspectives because sometimes you fall in love with one and not the other or it switches or whatever. I enjoyed, actually, the scope of that book, which is just giant. That was good. Probably, my favorite book I’ve read recently was Goodbye, Vitamin, which isn’t that new. I just love that book so much.

Zibby: I haven’t read that. I’ll check it out.

Nora: I really recommend it so much. It’s a very fresh voice.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Nora: Oh, gosh. I don’t know if this is trite and always said, but I think just to keep writing. One of the most difficult things is that notion of scraping an idea that you started. In the process of writing, there is always at least one point, at least for me, and usually many, at which I decided what I’m writing is trash and I should just stop and also periods of time in which what I’m writing isn’t very good. I always feel like if you can just keep pushing past it, keep writing, and get something on the page, you can always revisit it. I feel like that’s the challenge. Those moments of making yourself actually write is the hardest part. Then the only other thing I’d say is that rejection is a big part of writing. It’s really, really hard. Nobody likes it, but it’s part of it for everybody, even the most successful people. If you have a rejection and you can continue and you can try not to take it to heart and just persevere and keep writing, eventually, you’ll get there.

Zibby: I love it. Amazing. Nora, thank you so much. Thanks for talking about Competitive Grieving and for rescheduling.

Nora: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. I just want to say, I am so amazing by all the things that you’re doing lately. I am so fascinated by what you’re creating and what you’ve built. I have so many questions for you about whether you knew you were building this at the start or whether it was just something that sort of came together. Either way, it’s really amazing. It’s lovely that you’ve created a place for all of us as writers and readers to come together. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m just getting started. Lots more ideas coming.

Nora: I really, really believe that. I’m sure that’s true.

Zibby: Sorry to be so brief today, but great to meet you.

Nora: No, thank you so much, Zibby. Nice to meet you.

Zibby: Bye, Nora.

Nora: Bye.



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